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Community college administration – a little off the top

The pandemic has left no doubt that community college administration will be changing soon. Enrollment data show that overall, community colleges have lost about 15% of their students since Fall 2019. While the decline apparently coincides with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, community college enrollment has shrunk for the past decade.

How are these institutions responding to their enrollment losses? According to the Department of Labor, during the same period (FY 2019-FY2021), employment at community colleges dropped by 11.33%. In the best case, this represents losing open, unfilled positions. Worst case, this is layoffs and forced retirements.

I’ve written a few times about Erie Community College in Buffalo, NY. ECC is facing a $9M budget shortfall, which the institution’s new president says will push it into bankruptcy without significant changes.

In brief, ECC has three campuses in its service area, each with its own community college administration structure. Like many other community colleges in the US, its enrollment has declined by nearly half in the past decade. In 2011, ECC had an enrollment of more than 14,000 students. Today, its enrollment is about 7,500.

ECC staff are employees of Erie County, NY. The county will use about $2.5M in surplus funding to pay for an early retirement incentive for eligible ECC employees. Approximately 150 ECC staff are eligible to retire under the incentive guidelines. If all eligible employees accept the incentive, ECC could reduce its budget by about $6M.

Shrinking enrollment should lead to shrinking community college administration

ECC isn’t the only community college considering early retirement incentives and layoffs. The State of Tennessee must address a 16.2% drop in community college enrollment between 2019 and 2021. The Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees all public higher education in that state, says community college enrollment is as low in 2022 as it was in 2001. The declines have forced some of Tennessee’s 13 community colleges to resort to hiring freezes and involuntary separations. Tennessee also maintains a separate system of technical colleges, where enrollment has increased.

ECC and Tennessee’s community colleges should be a harbinger for places like Washtenaw Community College. At a time when enrollment was stagnant or declining, the WCC community college administration expanded. WCC currently has 13 executives who carry the title of vice president. Additionally, the college org chart includes dozens of directors and managers. At the same time, the size of the unions on campus (faculty, custodial and maintenance and office professionals) has been held firm or reduced.

The Board of Trustees must insist that the WCC administration return itself to the conditions present when the current executive took over. The size of the administration was smaller than that of the faculty union. In fact, the faculty union and the administration had a specific agreement that the size of the administration would not exceed the size of the faculty union. Period.

Administration costs are staggering

Unchecked administrative hiring adds to the institution’s overhead costs unsustainably. After each expansion, the cost of administration rises not just in that year, but compounds in every year going forward. The cost of WCC’s administration is staggering and is one of the most expensive (if not the most expensive) among Michigan’s community colleges. That says a lot, given that Washtenaw is mid-sized in that group.

Restoring the cap on the size of the community college administration should be non-negotiable. It will require a massive unwinding of the current administration. The WCC administration cannot continue to expand its size as the enrollment shrinks. Further, the Trustees must base the maximum allowable size of the administration on enrollment. When enrollment declines, the size of the administration must shrink. When the enrollment increases, the administration can increase only if the faculty union also increases equally.

The Board of Trustees can no longer habitually “accept the personnel report” at Board Meetings. That act literally abdicates the fiscal responsibility the taxpayers have given to the Trustees. The Trustees must understand not only the salary cost of each position they approve, but also the benefits costs of each new hire and where the money to pay for the new position will come from. Further, the Trustees need a running expense total for all personnel expenditures related to new hires in a fiscal year. They (and the public) must understand the high and growing cost of administration at WCC.

Photo Credit: thomas Leth-Olsen, via Flickr